Huffpost Culture
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Cliff Chenfeld Headshot

The Best Music of 2011

Posted: Updated:

Just in time for the holidays, here is my 9th annual list of music that you may have missed and might like. Not as many standout releases for me in 2011 but plenty of good ones. As in previous years, this list is meant for those who want to hear new music but don't get a chance to discover as much as they'd like. I generally don't include releases that have received a good deal of attention (Adele) or music that might be too inaccessible for those with limited time. Feel free to share and post. Safe and happy holidays to all...

Foo Fighters: Wasting Light. This is my favorite album of the year. Yes, they are big superstars and I usually don't include well known artists or releases but this album hasn't received the attention it deserves. Enormous energy, sing-along choruses, lyrics that matter, lots of ambition, yet completely contemporary. Dave Grohl is the best front man in rock (at least until Bruce comes back in 2012) and this record is a proud successor to landmark albums from folks like The Who, U2, Green Day (American Idiot at least), Bruce and Dave's previous band. If you want to start with one song, listen to either "These Days" or "Walk."

Lykke Li: Wounded Rhymes. This is her second album and in a more interesting world, she would be a big star. Lots of dramatic sounding drums that lay the foundation for big, memorable songs that speak honestly about what she wants and sometimes gets. A great, slightly retro voice that is in the Adele/Winehouse lane but definitely on the outside looking in.

Lissie: Catching A Tiger. A 2010 release that I missed. Lissie is a great, emotive singer and outstanding songwriter whose songs are well constructed and memorable. Cross a non-cloying Sheryl Crow with a little Adele and Feist, reduce slickness by 25% percent and you begin to get Lissie.

Dawes: Nothing Is Wrong. It seems like every year an album comes out from young bearded dudes that evokes the Band, Neil Young and that soulful, country influenced folk-rock of the early '70s. This one is the best of 2011 -- it is a real achievement to be so reverential yet still sound fresh. Kind of what Band Of Horses managed to do a few years ago.

Danger Mouse: Rome. Danger Mouse is about the grooviest guy around -- half of Gnarls Barkley, producer of Black Keys, member of the Broken Bells, creator of the Grey Album. Here he takes a stab at making an imaginary, modern Spaghetti Western soundtrack with help from folks like Jack White and Norah Jones. Very cool, evocative, laid back. The best background music of the year.

Swedish House Mafia: Save The World (Single). Dance music took over the world in 2011 and became mainstream. Lots of it is mechanical and silly but this track is a great piece of pop music by one of the biggest acts in the genre.

Various artists: Red Hot + Rio 2 Lively, uplifting joyous tribute to the Brazilian Tropicalia movement of the 1960s featuring legends of the genre (Caetano Veloso) with contemporary artists like Alice Smith, Beck and Of Montreal.

St. Vincent: Strange Mercy Annie Clark, who is St. Vincent, is a very talented, off-center artist who is worth spending time with. Her songs don't flow linearly, she often adds an instrument or change to take the song to an unexpected place and her lyrics are smart and provocative. When they make the movie in 2025 that dreamily looks back on the Brooklyn music scene in 2011, she will be the model for the coolest girl in the borough. A little Kate Bush, a little Talking Heads. Start with the song "Cheerleader."

The Strokes: Angles Yes, I know you know who the Strokes are but seems like lots of people missed this album which I thought was as good as anything they've done ... in fact, I like it better. They've really morphed into a more expansive group and it probably turns some people off that they look as much to the Cars as to Television for inspiration. Not me.

Antlers: Burst Apart. There is lots of space and quiet on this record that gives songs time to develop and build. Pete Silberman is a great singer who uses an amazing, strategically placed falsetto to elevate his introspective songs to a rare place.

Veronica Falls: Veronica Falls. Great debut album from this London based band that vocally evokes the Mamas and The Papas with much tougher foundation underneath. Lots of fuzzed out guitars and songs like "Found Love In A Graveyard" that aren't exactly "California Dreaming."

Metronomy: The Look (Single). One of my favorite singles of the year, keyboard-based techno vibe that builds with each line and disguises a very funky, spunky little pop song.

Dropkick Murphys: Going Out In Style. A fire-breathing, fist-raising march against despair, backed by massive guitars and bagpipes and played as loud and as fast as possible by this Irish-American punk rock band. You may remember their old song "I'm Shipping Up To Boston" from the movie The Departed.

Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds The guitarist from Oasis delivers a big album of brit-rock with strings, keyboards, hooks, dramatic choruses...and it turns out he sings nearly as well as his brother.

Iron and Wine: Kiss Each Other Clean Sam Beam, who is Iron and Wine, has made a number of quiet rustic albums that I liked but never loved. This one is better for me, mostly because he goes beyond skillfully evoking a mood and loosens up his songs with horns, cool percussion and a little funk.

Soul Khan: Soul Like Khan. Soul Khan is a very smart rapper from California who has become a freestyle legend on YouTube, defeating all pretenders to his throne. Check out this mix tape and his battles at your own risk....

Grouplove: Never Trust A Happy Song. The irony of course is that these are mostly happy, big-chorus songs, one that is already in an Apple commercial and some that remind of the Edward Sharpe record from last year ... which is fine with me. I like large groups of 21st century hippies blissfully grooving to catchy pop songs.

Dum Dum Girls: Only In Dreams Great combination of Phil Spector retro girl group sounds with modern, punky energy. And lead singer Dee Dee (Yes, a Ramones paean) can really really sing.

Raphael Saadiq: Stone Rollin' There is lots of love for 60s and 70s r&b from contemporary artists. Some imitate it, some evoke it, some ruin it ... Saadiq is a real talent who draws on funk, soul, Motown and Sly Stone to make his music little more real, personal and adventurous ... even if some of it sounds like it could have been played at my Bar Mitzvah.

The Head And The Heart: The Head And The Heart Very listenable piano and acoustic guitar-based modern "folk-rock." Quieter side of Coldplay meets the more conventional side of Mumford and Sons. Kind of.

Beirut: The Rip Tide Zach Condon has been making albums since he was 19, often influenced by music from Eastern Europe and Mexico. The songs here are a little more conventional and accessible but he is backed nicely by horns, accordions and his voice still occasionally heads into Rufus Wainwright warble.

The Boxer Rebellion: The Cold Still A UK based band led by a guy from Tennessee with a beautiful, soulful voice and haunting songs that evoke pre-bombast U2 (there was pre-bombast U2 wasn't there?) and on occasion "Wicked Game" by Chris Isaak. Lots of songs licensed for TV/movies to set that dramatic, emotional mood.

Kurt Vile: Smoke Rings For My Halo It sounds a little like slacker rock. but Kurt Vile has some wry observations and with song titles like "Jesus Fever" and "Society Is My Friend," you get sense of where he's coming from.

Quick hits:

Sean Kuti: From Africa With Fury: Rise Son of Fela continues father's propulsive afro-pop sound.

The Civil Wars: Barton Hollow Very pretty, folky. Americana debut album of duets from Joy Williams and John Paul White. A little bit like Plant + Krauss, just a little bit.

Gabriel Kahane: Where Are The Arms Literate, arty singer-songwriter.

M83: Hurry Up We're Dreaming Sprawling double album of dance-based, chilled out poppish songs.

Decemberists: The King Is Dead The best new REM album since 1992.

Washed Out: Within and WithoutDreamy, atmospheric, electron-ish, leisurely layered songs that give you the illusion that you have nothing to worry about.

Betty Wright: The Movie Every year a classic female singer comes back with a new album helped by younger fans. This year it's Betty, backed by the Roots and with a cameo by Snoop Dogg

Ryan Adams: Ashes and Fire One of the most talented singer-songwriters of the last 10 years comes back with good, not best album.

Florence & The Machine: Ceremonials Big voice, big songs, you probably already know her, if you don't, you should.

Calle 13: Entren Los Que Quieran Opinionated and bold Puerto Rican Reggaeton trailblazers serve up hot, ambitious mix that includes hip-hop, electronica and lots of other cutting edge sounds.

Middle Brother: Very sturdy, listenable American, alt-country

Teddy Thompson: Bella Son of Richard and Linda Thompson delivers another open, full-throated, emotional album.

The Tallest Man On Earth: The Wild Hunt 2010 album that I missed, best early Dylan influenced album I've heard in years.

Bon Iver: Bon Iver The indie darling of the moment, nominated for many Grammys, I'm not on the bandwagon but if I don't mention him I will get too many complaints. Check out song "Holocene."

Dengue Fever: Cannibal Courtship Another very cool album from the only band I listen to that combines Cambodian pop music and California rock.

Trembling Bells: The Constant PageantBeautiful British folk-rock influenced album

Lupe Fiasco: Lasers A flawed but ambitious hip-hop album that tries to get beyond the typical themes.

tUnE-yArDs: who can kill This one is for the ambitious -- combo of funk, rock, afro-pop, acoustic folk and more, unpredictable songs and striking vocals.

Gabe Dixon: One Spark Sweet piano-based pop songs from guy who probably wishes he had been born 25 years earlier.

A few more great singles...

Smith Westerns: Weekend Catchy feedback garage rock sounding hit
Standard Fare: Philadelphia Smart personal indie rock from 2010

Bonus Blast From The Past:

Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood: Nancy and Lee One of my favorite albums of 2011 came out in 1968. I don't know how I missed it back then, maybe I was too distracted by the cancellation of the Batman TV series or trying to understand what "In The Gadda Da Vida" meant, but in any event, I started playing it this year and can't stop. All of the songs are duets and Lee's deep, road-travelled "I've lived the life and survived to tell" vocals contrast perfectly with Nancy's pure, pristine voice. The songs have a loungy, boozy, mid-60s vibe with some country flavor. Think Mad Men meets Johnny Cash/June Carter.

That's it. I'm Out. Cheers.

For more on the best of 2011, visit bestof2011.aol.com.